Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Santo Domingo
The lively streets of Santo Domingo’s Zona Colonial—one of the city’s most historic neighborhoods—are ripe with the sights, smells, and sounds of Latin America. This tiny enclave is filled with traditional European-style architecture, well-kept parks, cobblestone streets, and artistic nods to adventurers past.
Los Tres Ojos National Park—one of Santo Domingo’s most unique natural attractions—is an open-air limestone cave that’s home to three beautiful lakes (hence the name “The Three Eyes”. An impressive network of stalagmites and stalactites surround the lakes and make a visit to Los Tres Ojos feel like stepping into another world.
Like much of this capital city, Faro a Colon, a bold and imposing cross-shaped structure, serves as a tribute to one of the world’s most famous explorers. Built in a style that’s more urban office building than coastal treasure, this mausoleum and museum does have one distinct feature that’s responsible for its namesake. Columbus Lighthouse projects a unique cross-shaped beam with a light so bright it can be seen from the shores of Puerto Rico.
Travelers who venture to this concrete structure can explore a vast collection of Columbian jewelry, an ancient boat from Cuba and what locals say are the remains of Christopher Columbus.
This UNESCO World Heritage site located in Santo Domingo’s Colonial Zone, is the oldest Viceroy residency in all of the Americas. Once the home of the famous Columbus family, the symmetrical structure was built by the famous explorers son is 1515.
This historic site, which is now home to the Museo Alcazar de Diego Colon, was once an architectural constellation of fifty rooms, gardens and courtyards. While this once impressive palace is today approximately half the size, the artifacts, tapestries and documents on display in the museum showcase a rich and colorful history that grants travelers a deeper understanding of the culture and stories of Santo Domingo, as well as one of the world’s most well-known explorers.
Calle Las Damas is one of the Colonial Zone’s most picturesque destinations. The cobblestone street—said to be the first ever in the New World—is lined with classic Spanish-style houses and beautiful European churches that are a nod to the city’s ancient past. Travelers can venture back in time as they wander past Fortaleza Ozama, Calle El Conde and Hoeyl Sofitel—the first solar clock on the continent. While the scenic street is worth checking out, visitors agree that the surrounding shops, quiet restaurants and colonial charm make Calle Las Damas.
The city of Santo Domingo is one of the oldest in the Caribbean, however the National Palace isn’t a colonial-era structure. Instead it harkens to a different, more recent period of the Dominican Republics history. The National Palace was built in the 1940s during the reign of the DR’s famously brutal dictator Rafael Trujillo. The National Palace is still in use as the seat of the DR’s government and the offices of the president, so it is not generally open to the public. However, visitors can explore the outside and take photos of the building’s impressive architecture.
In a diverse city with streets that vary from colonial cobblestone to well-worn dirt paths, the bustling square of Columbus Park proves iconic, with an energy that unifies old world Santo Domingo with contemporary Dominican Republic.
Once known as Plaza Mayor, the square was renamed after its towering sculpture of Christopher Columbus in the late 1800s. The historic park is a popular gathering place for travelers looking to people watch and locals looking for a bit of relaxation come mid-afternoon. Columbus Park’s close proximity to landmarks like the Catedral de Santa Maria la Menor, the Municipal Palace and the old commercial district known as Calle del Conde, make it the perfect place to kick off a day in the city’s old Colonial Zone.
Plaza de Espana was once a vast open field cultivated by the Taino Indian prior to the arrival of Spanish colonizers. It later became the starting point for soldiers as they paraded in regal fashion around the nearby palace of Diego Colon.
Today, this open square in the heart of Santo Domingo is a popular gathering spot for locals and travelers who want to revel in the sunshine while they take in the surrounding culture and street entertainment. Numerous restaurants and cafes offer an opportunity to relax with a cup of coffee, a traditional Dominican meal or a glass of wine, while the open space provides room for concerts and other performances.
The square is most often visited as part of a city tour—whether its on foot, Segway or bike. The nearby Bateria del Almirante is a perfect spot to check out stunning views of the Ozama River during daylight hours and visitors can also walk to the oldest commercial road in the city from Plaza de Espana.
This 16th-century fortress located in the Colonial Zone of Santo Domingo was built by the Spanish and is recognized today as a UNESCO World Heritage site. History buffs can explore La Fortaleza—which is the oldest European-style military building in the Americas—and learn more about how this old-school castle that once guarded the port of Dominica Republic’s capital city. Travelers can explore the grounds of this imposing castle that once served as a prison on their own or with the help of a local guide. A climb to the Torre del Homenaje offers incredible 360-degree views of the city, and a nearby powder house and rows of cannons reflect the fort’s important military history.
Travelers looking to get in touch with Dominica Republic’s deep European roots will find the Museum of the Royal Houses a must-see stop in Santo Domingo. This 16th-century building was once home to the administrative offices of the Spanish colonies.
Two distinct structures—the South and North buildings—were designed to house the first court of the New World, the offices of political leaders and the workspace of the comptroller. Visitors can wander the grounds and explore the labyrinth of rooms, which include displays on early legislation, the office of the chief judge, historical ceramics, military function and old world family life.
More Things to Do in Santo Domingo
With its powder-soft white sands and warm waters, Boca Chica is a classic beach resort and a popular escape from the Dominican capital. It’s fittingly referred to as the “largest swimming pool in the Dominican Republic” as the coral reefs just offshore keep the warm water here calm.
Founded in 1976, the National Botanical Garden in Santo Domingo was named after a Dominican botanist who published a guide to the plant life of Hispaniola. The calming paths of this quiet and contemplative garden are ideal for escaping the city streets, and athletic travelers agree the garden’s five miles of well-kept tread are perfect for early morning runs, too.
The botanical garden’s tram winds visitors through multiple ecosystems, tropical foliage and a broad range of displays that showcase Dominican Republic’s diverse flora. Travelers agree the impressive Japanese garden is an essential stop on any visit to the National Botanical Garden, and the lush lawns also prove ideal for afternoon picnics.
Recognized as one of the oldest churches in the Americas, Cathedral of Santa Maria la Menor is Santo Domingo’s most famous religious structure. Tucked into the old-world streets of the city’s Colonial Zone, Santa Maria was built in the early 1500s and remains an icon of the country’s Catholic community. Its classic Gothic and Baroque features are a nod to the church’s European roots and an extensive collection of woodcarvings and religious artifacts make a visit well worth the trip.
The city of Santo Domingo is one of Dominican Republic’s most diverse and colorful urban destinations. The upper-middle class sector known as Gazcue is no exception. One of the oldest neighborhoods in the city, travelers will find stunning Spanish-colonial architecture, tiled walkways, local restaurants and unique shops in this out-of-the-way part of town.
Once an enclave for the rich and elite, Gazcue has shifted over the years to become a haven for upper-middle class and working class Dominicans. Visitors can still find the old historic homes and stately houses that once defined this borough on a walk through the streets of Gazcue. A stroll through the European-style buildings showcases offers up some of the best scenery outside of the country’s epic beaches and the laid-back vibe offers a stark contrast to the electric energy found in the rest of Santo Domingo.
The Palace of Fine Arts, located in the heart of Santo Domingo, was designed by Francisco Manuel Batista and built to showcase the culture and traditions of the Dominican Republic during the reign of dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina. It is home to vast galleries as well as a 614-seat theater for productions and presentations.
Travelers who venture to the stunning white neoclassical structure with its impressive dome and imposing columns can check out a performance of the symphony orchestra, National Folkloric Ballet, or simply tour the building and learn about the incredible history of arts education that’s taken place here since the 1950s.
It’s easy to visit the Palacio de Bellas Artes as part of a Santo Domingo city tour by comfortable coach, on foot or by bike.